Violence Against Women in The Last of Us Part II and Beyond

The Last of Us, a video game released to critical acclaim in 2013, follows a man’s journey, along with his adolescent female charge, through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world. The game, though popular with critics and gamers alike, is characterised as extraordinarily graphic and rife with edgy, gritty and often gruesome themes and images — it is, after all, the apocalypse. Both central and peripheral characters meet brutal — and in some cases, egregious — ends, all in the name of entertainment and painting a vivid and violent world.

In the past couple months, Naughty Dog studios, the company responsible for the first The Last of Us, has confirmed the sequel is in its final stages pre-release. Then, on October 30, the studio posted a sample cinematic from the upcoming The Last of Us Part II. There is no better word for this short sequence than graphic. Viewer discretion is advised. 

The Cinematic

In it, a female cult leader — we have to assume — orchestrates the torture and near-hanging of two other female characters, including a particularly grotesque sequence in which one woman has her arm pulverised by a hammer. In the end, the timely entrance of a young man saves the two, and more vivid hammer action follows. The gaming community, for its part, reacted with mixed reviews and impressions.

Some lauded the The Last of Us Part II’s trailer as a gritty masterpiece, praising the lifelike graphics and realistic staging of the fight scenes, the palpable gore, and shiver-inducing destruction of human bodies, as really evoking the apocalypse for viewers. Others have lashed out at Naughty Dog for going too far in this direction, brushing up against the region of gore-porn in place of a substantive and sensitive storyline. Many viewers commented on the targeting of female characters in The Last of Us Part II’s in-game cinematic as a ploy for easy thrills.


Whatever your opinion of the first game and this recently released cinematic, the outrage at female suffering in video games is nothing new. For the past decade, the feminist movement has taken a keen interest in the overtly male-dominated area of gaming. While the presence of women has skyrocketed in gaming in recent years, the industry still caters to an overwhelmingly male population.

Casual Cruelty

Anita Sarkeesian is a known name in the gaming community. She first rose to the public spotlight during the height of the Gamergate attacks in 2014, in which a loosely organised group of gamers targeted prominent female players and commentators. During this period, Sarkeesian, along with other vocal figures, received threats of death, rape and other deeply troubling actions. The Gamergate posters claimed to be combating expanding progressiveness and feminism in the video game community.

Sarkeesian, for her part, has written extensively on the topics of female objectification in video games. In many ways, these personal attacks served to underline her commentary on the male domination of the industry and the dangerous implications and echo-chamber effects of such an isolated population. One of Sarkeesian’s most-debated areas of writing is the explicit and continued use of casual cruelty on incidental female characters. 

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#70006C” class=”” size=”19"]”Enforcing the expendable image of these women carries a massive and terrifying implication of its own.”[/[/perfectpullquote]p>

It is one thing for the female body to be put on display in a playable — quite literally empowered — fashion. Games like Mortal Kombat and League of Legends, though featuring well-endowed female characters in uniformly revealing outfits, allow these characters to be played and utilised in the same capacity as any male characters. Though the distortion of the female body in these games carries its own set of problems, these characters appear on a fundamentally even field as any other characters.

For Evil Purposes

Given this, Sarkeesian’s focus has drifted to narrative-driven games. In them, female characters are often relegated to marginal and unplayable roles and are subject to aggression and violence on the part of male antagonists as a means to drive the storyline and elicit a natural emotional response from the player. Cinematics such as those found in The Last of Us II potentially fall into this category. 

In Sarkeesian’s estimation, there is no more straightforward way of demonstrating who is righteous and who is evil than by causing violence to incidental female characters. Male gamers fall prey to the age-old tropes of chivalry and feeling a deep, guttural reaction when exposed to female harm. This type of response is warranted when characters gradually develop over the course of a storyline and are tragically ripped from us. However, Sarkeesian says this is rarely the case.

Instead, the inconsequential female characters appear as simple tools to advance the storyline and accentuate the depravity of certain — typically male — characters. Game developers seem to have this all down to a science and will usually target female sex workers or women in otherwise compromising positions — the social “throwaways.” Enforcing the expendable image of these women carries a massive and terrifying implication of its own.


However, female objectification manifests in another, hugely popular video game trope. In this, the typical “sexiness” of women portrayed in video games since the genesis of story-driven titles is mixed with violence as a means to evoke an edgy and dangerous but aesthetically pleasing world.

Instead of using specific and active instances of violence against women to evoke an emotional response, certain games utilise casual violence as a sort of game aesthetic. These titles portray women’s suffering as set pieces for certain stages of the game and allow the player to indulge in certain fantasies vicariously. From the exotic dancers of Grand Theft Auto to the trailer for Hitman: Absolution, women appear framed in demeaning and deadly ways for the benefit of the player.

Some Concerns From Gamers

This phenomenon is a slippery one to pin down: What constitutes excessive violence or humiliation on the part of non-player female characters, and what is reasonably accepted as a game aesthetic? There are arguments to be made that eliminating female-directed violence from games contributes to an unrealistic worldview for players.

Violence against women does exist in the real world and can be found more graphically in certain locations than others. To keep the escapist roots of video games alive, perhaps disallowing specific scenarios or areas is not the best way forward.

Further, enforcing the notion that bad guys participate in violence against women has its benefits, for all the weak story writing such tropes contribute to. If nothing else, studios still rely on the moral indignation players feel when experiencing violence against women, normalising how unacceptable such action is. 

The Last of Us -
Anonymous female pain in the latest The Last of Us Part II trailer. Source.

The real problem, it seems, is the portrayal of the characters targeted. They are anonymous, inconsequential to the story and simply introduced for the brief, unconscious reaction they elicit from the player. Video games struggle horrifically — for the most part, at least — to meet the Bechdel Test, which is a measure of gender depiction in media. The test only includes three rules: there must be at least two named female characters, those women must talk to each other, and they must talk about something other than a man. The majority of movies and video games alike do not meet this simple criteria, and that is simply lazy. Female anonymity is lazy. This technique does not do justice to the women of our world — or of any world these games are meant to create.

Featured Image Credit.

  1. hurin says

    GamerGate never harassed anyone, it was investigated by the FBI who found no actionable leads.

    These are professional victims who fake their own harassment to get more patreon donations from suckers.

    A Clockwork Orange features women being raped and murdered, it is also considered one of the best films ever made. Why should games be held to a different standard than movies?

  2. Zephyr Vaughan says

    if it where a random man being hung and abused would the reaction have been different? I think it would have been.

    1. rd says

      *Hanged. Hung is… something different.

      As a feminist (and a female), I don’t see the issue with this trailer. And to say the characters are inconsequential and anonymous. That clearly isn’t the case, they’re new characters for the sequel. And men are getting killed in the same fashion in many games. to say “oh women have to be treated delicately and never be put in tough situations” is basically saying women are weak and aren’t allowed to be put in violent situations in fictional media.

    2. AdorableDeplorable says

      Yes, men can’t be victims.

  3. AdorableDeplorable says

    Cry me a river. There’s a HELL OF A LOT more violence against men in video games, and the speech Nazis don’t say a word about that.

  4. Fithian says

    I thought you wanted to be on an equal playing field with men. Everything the same right?
    So Violence against men in Hollywood movies none stop (Deliverance is good, watch it!). Violence against men in games, constantly.
    So….whatsyaprob? Want to be treated differently…again?

  5. Vito Gesualdi says

    Sarkeesian’s critiques are quite obviously lacking in substance, something clear to anyone actually familiar with the medium of games. Citing her work is a misstep to be sure.

  6. bilabus123 says

    “The real problem, it seems, is the portrayal of the characters targeted. They are anonymous, inconsequential to the story and simply introduced for the brief, unconscious reaction they elicit from the player.”

    It’s a trailer, dummy. Y’know, like movies do. Presumably you find out more about the “targeted” characters when you actually get your hands on the story. Do you watch a trailer for a Superman movie and say “The problem is, I don’t know who this bemuscled, spandex-wearing fellow is or why he’s getting beaten about!”

  7. Julio Weigend says

    1. The Bechdel Test is hot garbage and a poor metric for measuring depictions of gender outside of dramas and arthouse narratives. Even female-fronted genre stories fail it, including the new Star Wars films, which were supposed to pass it.
    2. You have no way of knowing if these female characters are “anonymous.” They could be central to the story for all you know.
    3. You conveniently fail to mention the many gruesomely-gutted dead men in the trailer who obviously suffered the fate these characters were meant to suffer… THOSE characters certainly are anonymous, aren’t they?
    4. Ellie has agency and is playable for a sizable chunk of the original game–and she CERTAINLY meets the (irrelevant) Bechdel Test requirements, especially in the storyline with Riley.
    5. With all due respect, Anita Sarkeesian knows a lot about feminism, but she knows very little about games, as would be obvious to virtually anyone who games even on a casual level.

    Sarkeesian’s analyses would be very true IF she actually played the games she comments on; more often than not, she doesn’t (she uses other people’s gameplay footage), which in many cases has thoroughly invalidated many of her theories due to the fact that she’s simply just constantly and consistently misinformed on the titles she attempts to use as examples. I have no idea if she cherry-picks consciously or if she’s just a lazy researcher on the gaming side of things (she’s obviously more interested in feminism), but her analyses are usually proven inaccurate by later points in the narratives she critiques.

  8. Mike Alstatt says

    In the ‘last of us’ trailer, 3 people die. Guess what gender they are? Yet they whinge about a woman getting hit by a hammer.

  9. Raphael Silva says

    feminists are like a bunch of leeches sniff money at miles, they want to make an uproar about violence in games against women, here I come, SERIOUS? women are just like any character to tell stories and violence is a part of life, but this is the excuse of feminists to enter the gaming industry with their fake diplomas in therapeutic dances or women’s studies because they can not create anything by themselves , as in Star Wars or Marvel invaded these giants in order to create their perfect feminist world where no one, I repeat, nobody likes and the result always leads these companies near bankruptcy or bankruptcy, of a time to here the industry of games has undergone a low good titles if feminism comes in it will wipe out the industry by destroying it completely.

  10. Jim Sarji, DDS says

    great article – the video game violence debate is big. it does have an influence on kids…there is medical evidence…Jim Sarji, DDS

  11. TheObscure says

    You either want equality or you don’t want it. You can’t champion the cause of strong female characters without said characters having to deal with the same hardships as their male counterparts. No cherrypicking please. This is an apocalyptic world. The same critics who fuss about violence against women in games like this will cry foul if the men step in and do the fighting for them. Neil Druckmann was a big Anita Sarkeesian fan a while back. I wonder when her capricious brand of feminist activism is going to turn on him if it hasn’t already done that. Sooner or later, those people end up turning on each other because no one has an absolute definition of female empowerment. What is empowering to some is demeaning to others. It’s a ridiculous circle jerk. So which is it gonna be? Equality or exceptionalism? Violence against women in an apocalyptic environment is equality, assuming that men meet the same fate. They do. If that doesn’t satisfy feminists, then they want the benefits of equality without the responsibility. They wanted their female characters to be able to physically dominate a man in a fight
    without having to take a punch to the face.

  12. indefinableification says

    Anita Sarkeesian, right up there with Zoe Quinn, although Anita has yet to force a guy to commit suicide from allegations rather than go to.. say.. the police.

    Weird how they paint joel as a bad guy, but in the first game Ellie goes on a revenge spree with a positive spin on it. If Naughty Dog had any more hypocrisy they would make EA blush

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